Louis-Philippe Boitard has long been assumed to have been a Frenchman who migrated to England in the 1730s, in emulation of his father Francis, a pupil of Raymond Lafage. In fact, father and son were both more closely linked with England than has been recognised. Francis Boitard was a French designer and engraver, drawing master and dealer in prints and drawings. Hitherto thought to have been based in London only briefly (from 1709-12), Francois was probably working there as early as 1701 and married Grace Sarviss/Sarviso at St James Clerkenwell on 24 September 1704.
Louis Philip was their second documented child, baptised on 11 November 1712 at St Mary-le-Bow. He was presumably taught by his father, and by the 1730s was gaining work as a designer and engraver. Boitard's growing success reached the House of Commons in 1742, where 'a great sound of Fame was made' by one of his supporters to mark the fact that he was then working in Paris, 'an Englishman under pay to the King of France.' Given the many French engravers who had been brought to England in the early eighteenth century due to the limitations of English workmanship, the desire to record this reversal was understandable. Success was not long-lasting, for in the mid-1740s, when he had returned to London, he was working as a journeyman engraver for William Henry Toms, in whose workshop John Boydell criticised the louche habits of both Boitard and his fellow engraver Chatelain. Not long after, in 1748, Boitard was living in Fleet as an insolvent debtor. He died in 1758, 'the ingenious Mr Boitard, a Copper-Plate Engraver', and was buried at St Martin in the Fields.
Most of Boitard's surviving drawings, including five described here, were originally in an album of sixty-five studies. These bear witness to his troubled way of life. Most were drawn on the streets and in the taverns of Covent Garden and are solitary studies of poor men and women who are often drunk or asleep. Others (such as cat 79) depict exhausted seamen on the cross-channel packet boat. Their candour and immediacy was doubtless made possible because Boitard himself shared his subjects' poverty. Boitard made duplicate versions of several of his studies, such as the man asleep at the table, another version of which is at the Huntington Library; and the study of Covent Garden headdresses, which also exists in two versions.
Several of the album drawings are related to the 1747 engraving The Covent Garden Morning Frolick which Boitard designed, engraved and published himself. The print depicts a group of dishevelled revellers being carried home after a late night, as the grimy characters of Covent Garden by day crowd around them. A link boy called 'Little Cazey' whom Boitard sketched in Bridewell Prison (British Museum 1962,0714.11), leads the way; the right-hand woman in Study of Headdresses in Covent Garden is visible in the extreme right of the print and next to her is the woman in the drawing with a blue band over her eye. By making duplicate versions of his sketches of Covent Garden low life Boitard may have found a way to broaden the commercial usefulness of the print by offering buyers additional 'on the spot' studies. Their particularity was doubtless due in part to the fact that these were identifiable people; indeed one of the drawings is inscribed with the subject's name, Molly Doyle.
Mid-eighteenth-century Covent Garden was an area of contrasts: a centre of theatre, the art world, taverns and prostitution as well as flower and vegetable markets. Boitard's The Covent Garden Morning Frolick (The British Museum) belongs to the genre of art that used Covent Garden as a stage for encounters between rich and poor, whose early and most notable example was Hogarth's 1738 engraving Morning, in which a lady walks uncomfortably to church past a ragged group of prostitutes and beggars. Like Hogarth on this occasion, Boitard's intent seems more humorous than moral and his print celebrates the cacophonous energy of city life that Covent Garden exemplified. Boitard had a close knowledge of Hogarth's work, and was alleged to have pirated The Rake's Progress a fortnight before the actual set came out in 1735, which motivated Hogarth to press for his act of parliament to protect his copyright in his engravings.
It is evident that, by the time Boitard was making his studies of the poor in the later 1740s, watercolour was established as a medium to be applied in transparent washes in conjunction with pen and ink outlines, in contrast to the earlier application of more solid colours and small brush strokes. Boitard's technique is comparable to Paul Sandby's early work, including the watercolour figure studies he made in Edinburgh in the later 1740s. Boitard also used watercolour for more fully worked up drawings, such as of a country vagrant, his bandaged limbs perhaps indicating his status as a war veteran; in its use of watercolour it is no different from a drawing of the 1770s.
The Boitard album was broken up by the collector Leonard Duke between 1943 and 1960. Nineteen of the drawings are now at the Yale Center for British Art, two are in the British Museum and one is at the Huntington Library. Duke's album was inscribed by two earlier owners: Ponsonby Shaw of Dublin and his father-in-law Jonathan Eade (died 1811) of Stoke Newington. In 1770 Eade had married Margaret, daughter of John Bowles the printseller of Cornhill and Croft-Murray suggested that the album had been part of Bowles's bequest to her of his 'Book Case and all the books therein'. Of the five drawings, four remained in the album when Duke acquired it and were among thirty five drawings he sold to Spink, but he purchased the study of the sleeping sailor separately.
- Boitard designed the title page to a set of mathematical playing cards for the London instrument maker Thomas Tuttle, who died in January 1702.
- London, Society of Genealogists, Boyd’s ‘Inhabitants of London’, Boitard, Francis 50193.
- Vertue, vol.III, p.109.
- Eds. Kenneth Garlick and Angus MacIntyre, The Diary of Joseph Farington, New Haven and London, 1979, vol.IV, p.1415.
- London Gazette, 16 July 1748.
- Whitehall Evening Post, 28 September 1758.
- Illustrated in H Hammelmann, 'Portrayer of 18th-century cockneys', in Country Life, 24 September 1959, p.356.
- Horace Walpole, The Works of Horatio Walpole, London, 1798, vol. 3, p.468.
- Duke's catalogue is in the library of the Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum.
- Edward Croft-Murray, unpublished typescript catalogue, Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum.